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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

MassPIRG Steps Up Textbook Campaign

Last Wednesday the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG) held a news conference to announce the formation of a coalition to battle price hikes and what they deem “unfair policies” by Thomson Learning and other textbook publishers. In their latest salvo against the industry, MassPIRG has marshaled over 540 mathematics professors representing more than 125 universities to represent the interests of students everywhere. Thomson Learning denies its textbooks are overpriced and stands by the quality of their product.

Speaking on behalf of the coalition was UMB mathematics professor John Lutts, who uses Thomson Learning textbooks in the classroom. Lutts criticized the firm for their high prices and what he deemed unnecessary edition changes. Lutts held up two Thomson textbooks, one edition apart, and declared “page for page [they] are the same…the content is the same.”

Lutts based his arguments on an extensive study compiled by the Oregon and California PIRGs last January entitled “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks.” The report accuses publishers of using gimmicks to raise prices and engaging in unethical business practices.

Lutts insisted Thomson uses gimmicks to sell new textbooks and charge exorbitant prices. He asked textbook publishers to give students a break, commenting that “students, here especially, don’t have a lot of money.” “Don’t rip them off,” he demanded.

He also pleaded for Thomson to acquiesce to students’ demands for an explanation of their policies. “I would like to know why Thompson does this,” he said, adding, “They don’t seem to give us a good answer.”

The study finds that students pay an average of $900 a year on textbooks with that burden increasing. Although the costs of new textbooks are rising, the report cites a survey of educators in which more than half said that new editions are “rarely to never” justified.

Furthermore, the report reveals that American students are paying significantly more for their textbooks than students elsewhere. British students, for instance, pay just $65 for a mathematics book which costs Americans $125.

Eileen Engley, a MassPIRG representative, charges textbook publishers with using “gimmicks to artificially inflate textbook costs.” She accuses publishers like Thomson of producing new editions that often have no significant changes in content in order to make used editions “unavailable” and charge “outrageous” prices. Engley highlighted one of Thomson’s texts, Calculus: Early Transcendentals, as an example. “The only significant difference between these two [editions] is the price,” she said.

Students have also shown concern over the price of textbooks. Student Senator Heidi Parmenter commented, “We students are a captive market that have no choice but to pay whatever price the manufacturers and bookstores charge us.” Former student senator Robert Nappier opined, “Thomson learning…is taking advantage of students…unable to bargain for better prices.” Activist Tony Naro declared, “I think that what goes on in bookstores across the whole nation is clearly extortion.”

Adam Gaber, senior director for communications at Thomson, adamantly denies MassPIRG’s allegations. Gaber defends Thomson’s policies, saying, “Thomson Learning is all about offering customers, be they instructors or students, the greatest choice possible.”

Gaber defended Thomson’s outreach to students saying, “We have recently introduced an entire new series of books…which provides a new option for purchasing cheaper textbooks.” He also noted that many students “use [Early Transcendentals] over three semesters, so the price they pay up front provides them with their calculus course materials for that extended time period.”

He also backed up the reasons for textbook updates. The new texts “prevent students from sharing answers,” he said, adding that while much of the subject matter doesn’t change, “New editions are created to provide new pedagogy and improve instructional techniques,” and “It is vital for course materials to be current.”

Gaber also denies targeting American students with high prices. He insists that Thomson “sets regional prices in the context of local consumers’ purchasing power and other local market conditions… to be competitive with indigenous publishing programs.” In other words, books are cheaper in Britain due to the market conditions there and Thomson must adapt to these conditions.

While MassPIRG contends that Thomson has dismissed students’ concerns, Gaber argued that MassPIRG has ignored attempts to communicate through a mediator, the Association of American Publishers, which he claims had offered to work with MassPIRG in their research.

Gaber also insisted that the PIRGs’ research is flawed, calling it “inaccurate” and “misleading,” faulting them with producing a report that is “filled with errors and omissions.” Gaber claims, “The report methodology does not conform to accepted research standards,” and contends that the report is heavily biased, saying that it focuses on mathematics books which are always the most expensive to produce.

MassPIRG plans to continue their effort to get textbook prices reduced by putting pressure on publishers and spreading awareness of alternatives. Thomson is addressing the issue with a new line of value priced textbooks marketed under the name “Advantage Series.”